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Young guns fired up Mayo have to scratch their five-year itch to win the Connacht Championship


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Mayo manager James Horan speaks to his players last Sunday when they defeated Leitrim to set up this weekend’s clash with Roscommon

Mayo manager James Horan speaks to his players last Sunday when they defeated Leitrim to set up this weekend’s clash with Roscommon

Mayo manager James Horan speaks to his players last Sunday when they defeated Leitrim to set up this weekend’s clash with Roscommon

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IT'S late May 2019, and the Mayo camp are still nursing the open wound of a traumatic defeat to Roscommon the previous Saturday. Andy Moran is explaining how the next three weeks of training could "make or break" Mayo hopes of reviving their Sam Maguire ambitions

"We wanted to win a Connacht championship," the 2017 Footballer of the Year insisted. "I remember walking out in 2015 thinking, 'We've won five in-a-row' and we probably took our eye off the ball over the years, I suppose, trying to capture the big one. And now we haven't won in ... it will be five years next year. So, the momentum over the last four years has been lost and we need to get back to winning Connacht championships."

Now it's 2020 and Mayo have a five-year itch in urgent need of scratching. The pandemic has served to prolong the wait; this year's Connacht race is nearly six months beyond schedule and its integrity has suffered a midweek hammer blow with Sligo forced to forfeit their semi-final against Galway.

But as Mayo prepare for what they hope will be a revenge mission in Roscommon, there is one unsubtle difference between now and last year.

There is no 'back door' to save them.

Sunday's showdown will play out at a deserted Dr Hyde Park. Five years ago, 23,196 crammed into the same venue to witness a massacre of the Sligo innocents, who lost to Mayo by 6-25 to 2-11.

Aidan O'Shea, playing in the same full-forward position to which he has just returned, was a wrecking ball. He scored 3-4 from play and had a role in Mayo's three other goals plus numerous points.

In short, he was unstoppable; as were Mayo in Connacht back then. In their first year as joint-managers (and last, sin scéal eile) Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly had secured a record-equalling five-in-a-row.

Mayo, it seemed, could almost take provincial baubles for granted in their pursuit of the holy grail. Not any more.

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Aidan O'Shea of Mayo in action against Oisin Mac Cafraigh of Leitrim

Aidan O'Shea of Mayo in action against Oisin Mac Cafraigh of Leitrim

Aidan O'Shea of Mayo in action against Oisin Mac Cafraigh of Leitrim

Mayo failed to even reach, let alone win, any of the next four Connacht finals. Having enjoyed the whip hand over Galway in the preceding years, they lost three on the bounce from '16 to '18. Then, last year, they fell to Roscommon.

"I think you nearly have to break the five-year itch in half," reckons Billy Joe Padden, the former Mayo player-turned-pundit. "The priority changed in the immediate aftermath of the five-in-a-row, where it was about prolonging and timing your run best for an All-Ireland tilt.

"That was definitely the case in the first two years after that - and to be honest, in (Stephen) Rochford's time, it probably worked in that Mayo played their best football late in those years.

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"But in the years since, you can say that those individual incidents, poor performances, not doing enough, not maybe having enough of an impact off the bench in certain games, has really hurt them - when it has been a priority for them.

"Winning a Connacht title has been a priority for the team over the last couple of years, because it is seen as a big title to win."

Padden's reference to "individual incidents" touches on how Mayo have been complicit in their own provincial downfall through those past four seasons.

In 2016, they led Galway by four points after 50 minutes only to lose by three, Tom Flynn's goal after intercepting a Robbie Hennelly kickout proving pivotal.

A year later they lost by just a point to Galway, having played with 14 men from the 26th minute after Keith Higgins walked for an off-the-ball strike.

It was déjà vu in 2018, Diarmuid O'Connor seeing red for a high elbow just before the half-hour … and yet Galway still needed an injury-time goal to win by three points.

There was more self-inflicted agony last year, leaking two goals to Roscommon inside 11 minutes, the second after another short Hennelly kickout went awry … and, even still, Mayo only lost to an injury-time winner.

In these four summers, Mayo played fast and loose through the qualifiers but still reached two All-Ireland finals, losing by the minimum to Dublin in '16 (after a replay) and '17, and then made it back to a semi-final last year, Dublin once again proving their nemesis.

Even since then, James Horan has accelerated the transition process. Six players made their first SFC starts as they squelched to an 11-point win in Leitrim. Just four of the first 15 last Sunday - David Clarke, Lee Keegan, O'Shea and a revitalised Cillian O'Connor - started the 2015 Connacht final.

"There's plenty of young players now involved with Mayo that don't have a Connacht medal," Padden points out.

"If that is the strongest team Mayo can put out, well then obviously some of the older players on the panel are either dealing with injuries or have a significant loss of form, because they're good enough.

"And particularly the defensive players … the likes of Chris Barrett, Colm Boyle, even Séamie O'Shea around the middle, they'll be valuable players in these sort of conditions."

To end this mini-famine, Mayo must first take out the holders, Roscommon, and then Galway. Two difficult tasks - this weekend arguably more so, Padden reckons. And yet he still fancies Mayo in the Hyde. Without having any inside information, he expects to see several of the veterans return against the Rossies. "I'm not caveating it - I think they'll win but I think they'll win with the help of some of the old guard," he concludes.

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